7 cyber libel raps vs Rappler dismissed by GenSan prosecutor for “lack of probable cause”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 13 April) –  The City Prosecutor’s Office of General Santos dismissed, for lack of probable cause,  seven complaints of cyber libel filed by an official of Pastor Apollo Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ against Rappler for a series of articles published late last year on cases involving Quiboloy, the self-proclaimed “appointed Son of God” who since January 31, 2022, has been “wanted” by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for sex trafficking and fraud, among other charges. 

Assistant City Prosecutor Kayuggen Mato Kuda Jr. dismissed the seven complaints for alleged violation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 in an omnibus resolution dated March 31, 2022, approved by City Prosecutor Clemencia Dinopol-Cataluna.  The resolution was released on Monday. 

The GenSan resolution brings to 21 the total number of complaints thrown out by the city prosecutors’ offices in three cities, out of at least 50 filed against the same respondents in at least five cities in Mindanao since early January this year. 

The GenSan resolution came a month after a joint resolution dated February 18, 2022 of a three-member prosecution panel in Cagayan de Oro City, approved by City Prosecutor Charisse Galarrita-Bitoon, dismissed seven similar cyber libel complaints against the same respondents, for insufficiency of evidence, even without counter-affidavits from the respondents. On March 15, the prosecution in Ozamiz City also dismissed motu propio seven complaints against the same respondents, as did the prosecution in General Santos City on March 31.

The complainant in Cagayan de Oro, Cherry Seguiro Cabrillos, is cluster coordinator for Northern Mindanao of the  Kingdom of Jesus Christ The Name Above Every Name, Inc. or KJC.  The complainant in Ozamiz City, Virginia Menoza Villanueva, is an island coordinator of the KJC. 

As of April 12, Rappler has counted at least 16 complaints alleging 50 counts of cyber libel against the same respondents in the cities of Cagayan de Oro, Davao, General Santos, Ozamiz and Panabo. Only the complaints in Davao City (six complaints, 28 counts) and Panabo (one complaint, one count), are still pending, according to Rappler’s legal counsel, Theodore Te, who is coordinating with the lawyers in Mindanao. 

The number of complaints represent only those that are known to Rappler. 

An April 4 report published on its website said Rappler and other respondents “were unaware of the seven complaints filed in Cagayan de Oro by Quiboloy’s cluster coordinator for Northern Mindanao Cherry Seguiro Cabrillos until it obtained a copy of the resolution late last week.” 

Rappler was also unaware of the seven complaints in Ozamiz until after the resolution was issued.  

“While we commiserate with how the complainant feels about the unsavory articles and videos hurled on her pastor, and collaterally, to the church and its ministry, we nevertheless find she has no legal personality to file this case,” the March 15 resolution of  Prosecutor Noel Boter, approved by Ozamiz City Prosecutor Cherrymie Mamauag, said. 

Like the complaints in Cagayan de Oro and Ozamiz, the complaints in General Santos City were also filed by a KJC coordinator. 

Gemma Completo Sanchez, Southern Mindanao Cluster Coordinator of the Executive Pastor alleged in her General Santos City complaints, that Rappler, its Regions head Inday Espina-Varona, Mindanao coordinator Herbie Gomez,  reporter Pia Ranada, former researcher Vernise Tantuco; Jayeel Cornelio, sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University and one of the awardees of The Outstanding Young Men in 2021; and former KJC members Arlene Caminong-Stone, Faith Killon, and Reynita Fernandez “maliciously published several articles and documentary videos” on the Rappler website allegedly “attacking, discrediting, maligning and destroying the name of” Quiboloy and the KJC itself. 

“Wanted by the FBI”

Quiboloy, a spiritual adviser and friend of President Rodrigo Duterte, is presently “wanted” by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation for “conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, and sex trafficking of children; sex trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion; conspiracy; and bulk cash smuggling.”

Quiboloy was indicted by a federal grand jury in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Santa Ana, California, for these charges and a federal warrant was issued for his arrest on November 10, 2021.

The “wanted by the FBI” posters of Quiboloy, Teresita Tolibas Dandan, and Helen Panilag, were posted on the FBI’s website on January 31, 2022.

Quiboloy, Dandan and Panilag  are wanted for their alleged participation in a “labor trafficking scheme that brought church members to the US, via fraudulently obtained visas, and forced the members to solicit donations for a bogus charity, donations that actually were used to finance church operations and the lavish lifestyles of its leaders,” the FBI said. 

The poster noted that that females allegedly “were recruited to work as personal assistants, or ‘pastorals,’ for Quiboloy and that victims prepared his meals, cleaned his residences, gave him massages and were required to have sex with Quiboloy in what the pastorals called ‘night duty.’”

Quiboloy’s lawyer, Ferdinand Topacio, in an online press briefing on February 6, said the charges against Quiboloy were part of an “orchestrated effort” to destroy him and “indirectly, the present administration.”

“Failed to prove”

Kuda said that while KJC’s operation and ministry were affected by the articles and videos posted by Rappler, “the fact that herein  complainant is a member and cluster Coordinator of the KJC does not satisfy the element of identifiability.”

Citing jurisprudence, the resolution said that for a libel complaint to prosper, all four elements must be present: it must be defamatory, malicious, given publicity, and the victim must be identifiable. It added that it becomes cyber libel “when committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.” 

According to the resolution, the first three elements of libel are present and the cited articles and videos published online “are clearly defamatory to Pastor Quiboloy and KJC;” that “generally, malice is presumed in every defamatory remark” but the fourth element — that the victim must be identifiable  — is absent. 

“Declarations made about a large class of people cannot be interpreted to advert to an identified or identifiable individual. Absent circumstances specifically pointing to or alluding to a particular member of a class, no member of such class has a right of action without at all impairing the equally demanding right of free speech and expression, as well as the press, under the Bill of Rights,” the resolution quoted from a 2003 ruling in MVRS Publications, Inc. vs Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines, which the Ozamiz resolution also quoted. 

The GenSan resolution also noted that “even a lackadaisical examination” of the articles and videos show that Sanchez “was never mentioned and no description or reference was ever made to establish she is the same person alluded to in the articles and videos identified her as the victim.”

“It is essential that the victim be identifiable, although it is not necessary that the person be named,” the resolution said, adding the complainant “failed to prove” that the articles and videos identified her as the victim. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)